Parashat Va'et'hanan

Guard Yourselves Very Well

The Torah requires us to eat and live healthfully and responsibly.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with Canfei Nesharim. To learn more, visit www.canfeinesharim.org.

There is a well known Midrash that tells of God taking Adam on a tour of the world shortly after his creation. At the end of the tour, God says to Adam, "Now, make sure you don't destroy this world, for there will be no one after you to come and fix it."

We can still hear God speaking these words today if we listen carefully. Woven into the fabric of our tradition, an environmental ethic appears throughout the halakhic (legal) and mystical teachings of the Torah. It is part of the ancient consciousness that each generation inherits from those that came before, whose responsibility it is to then pass it on to those who will come next. As history unfolds and society changes, new faces of the Torah are revealed, as its ancient laws must be applied to completely new situations.

New Ways to Grow Food

Over the past century humans have developed technologies whose use and implementation have exponentially increased our destructive impact on the natural world. Among the most detrimental have been the changes we have made in the most fundamental human action: growing food to sustain our existence.  

Following World War II, America and the rest of the world began its shift from a more traditional, organic-by-default approach to farming to one that depended on synthetic chemicals in order to control pests and weeds as well as to fertilize the soil. The intent was to increase food production in hope of wiping out world hunger, something that never actually happened, although food production was greatly increased.

The original proponents of chemical pesticides, focusing solely on the shorter production time and increased crop yield the pesticides would bring, were unaware of the long-term harmful effects these chemicals would have not only on the land and the food it grew, but also on local water sources and animal life, in addition to the effects on, of course, us humans.

Though each negative impact of chemically intensive farming is of extreme importance and can be responded to from within the framework of Torah, we will focus here on the specific impact it has on human health (though the impact on soil, water, and other animal life is, of course, also a human health issue).

Therefore the question that stands before us is: Does a method of farming based on synthetic chemical inputs fit within the vision the Torah has for life here on Earth?

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Akiva Gersh

Akiva Gersh has been working in the field of Jewish education since 1998, including teaching Jewish environmental studies and directing Jewish summer programs. He currently works at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program where he teaches Jewish history to visiting high school students from the United States.